Richard at Peking Duck pointed me to this great essay by columnist Andrew Leonard over at on Wade and Giles of Wade-Giles, names everyone who has ever puzzled over a Chinese character knows….

All my adult life, the names Wade and Giles, the first two professors of Chinese at Cambridge, have been linked inseparably in my head, as I am sure is true for countless other students of Chinese. But how many know that the two men were enemies, or that one was opposed to missionary evangelization (also a sin in my book,) or was a powerful advocate for better treatment of Chinese by the British?

I first fell in love with Chinese characters when I bought every volume of Needham’s classic Science and Civilization in China, which spends page after page ferreting out the history of characters both common and abstruse. The breadth and depth of Needham’s knowledge, his reverence for history, his manifest love of the culture that had produced this strange writing system, his mastery of minutae, of facts, captivated me. That magical year, which I account one of the best of my life, I had just arrived in Taiwan. It was 1989 and the NT was 24 to the US dollar. Foreign English teachers were minting money. I was living in a hostel next to the train station, working 60 hours a week, living on buttered toast and milk, and staying up late at night waiting for my girlfriend to come home from her job pouring drinks in a nightclub. With nothing better to do in the wee hours of the morn, I cracked open a copy of McNaughton’s book on Chinese characters, and memorized 15-25 a day, writing them over and over again just like a little kid, tongue stuck of one side of my mouth, one leg braced against the leg of the desk to steady it and me. I bought scads of out of print textbooks at the Shih Ta bookstore, learning Chinese by reading about how the great Chiang Kai-shek was going to retake the mainland from the Communist bandits. I could say Gwangfu before I could blurt out ni hao, read a newspaper before I could hold a conversation. At night I’d stumble through the uneven, overcrowded sidewalks of Taipei, beguiled by noise and neon, reading all the signs aloud, because I could. They were mine.

Alas, those days are gone. The hostel was plowed under to make way for the metro, and the crackling exuberance of the late ’80s was demolished to make way for the malaise of the late ’90s. The now with all its promise has become the future with all its disappointments, and the neon looks more like face paint than a healthy glow. But what I wouldn’t give to be 26 again, strolling down Chang-an Rd at ten at night, murmuring the signs to myself…..